Sagalla Farmers Beekeeping Training

Text by International Intern, Kat Finck

There was a time in Sagalla, Kenya, when the rainy season could be predicted. Farmers counted on that regularity and planted their crops of maize, green grams, cowpeas and watermelon according to the cycles of moisture. Now, nobody knows when the precious rain will fall.

Sagalla experiences two rainy seasons, one of which occurs between the months of October through December. However, last year, the village received just one month of rain during December. This shortfall has challenged not only farmers, but also foraging bees.

The lack of water availability from extreme drought has led to fewer floral plants. With less foraging opportunities, beehive occupation has plummeted. This has created opportunities for invasive pests—including wax moth larvae, long horned beetles, sugar ants and cockroaches—to invade beehive fences and displace bee colonies. With fewer bees, the hives lose their vibrancy and are unable to deter elephants from marauding through vulnerable croplands.

(L): Recent elephants footprints on the outskirts of a local farm in Sagalla. (R): Traces of large elephant footprints found on a local farm. Photo: Kat Finch


In response, The Elephants and Bees Project hired Loise Njeru, a beekeeping specialist from Nairobi, to help address some of these drought-related problems. Most recently, she engaged farmers in their first ever beekeeping course that consisted of both theoretical and practical training.

(L): Loise leads a theoretical training course on beekeeping for farmers at the Elephants and Bees Research Center. (R): Farmers of Sagalla parade behind Loise to start their practical training in beehive management. Photos: Kat Finck 


On the day of the first practical training, Loise led eight farmers dressed in full bee suits, closed-toed gumboots and arm-length gloves to a beehive that bordered fields with ripening maize and legumes.

As farmers gathered closely, Loise gently cracked open the flat sticky top of a wooden beehive. Worker bees had sealed it down with propolis–an adhesive substance they produce with tree resin. In response to Loise’s gentle disturbance, a uniform sound of buzzing emerged from within the hive. The lid was removed completely, and dozens of irritated bees besieged the area. Swarms of bees dove against the farmers who were dressed safely in their protective white suits and nylon netted veils.

(L): The bees particularly enjoyed the comfortable hat of one farmer. (R): Two bees deep in conversation. Photos: Camille Morales (L) and Kat Finck (R) 


As the buzzing intensified, Loise instructed one of the farmers to smoke the hive. All beekeepers use a smoker to sedate their bees. The chemicals from the smoke overwhelm the bee’s sense of smell, which limits their ability to detect pheromones, a substance produced and released into the environment when bees are stressed. “They assume the smoke is a forest fire,” said Loise, “and begin eating honey in preparation to leave the hive and find a new home.” Engorged from a honey feast, their abdomens are so full that they can’t fly and sting as easily.

One of the farmers prepares a smoker with saw dust. Photo: Kat Finck


As soon as the bees responded to the smoker, Loise lifted the individual frames of the hive. “There are many things a beekeeper must check for during hive monitoring,” said Loise, as she casually crushed a lurking hive beetle between her fingers.

Loise mercilessly smothers a beehive beetle, one of the many pests that eats eggs, larvae, pollen and honey. Photo: Kat Finck


Examining the cells found within the honeycomb is one of the ways farmers communicate with their bees. “By observing the various colors and shapes of the cells, farmers can interpret the health of the bees and the strength of their colony,” Loise said as she pointed with an ungloved finger towards a colorful mosaic of hexagons.

(L): Loise holds up one of the hives frames to reveal an array of hexagonal cells. (R): The bees begin their work to transform the comb into a living corridor for brood and a storage unit for both honey and pollen grains. Photo: Kat Finck


While examining one of bulging honeycombs, Loise pointed to both worker bee (female) and drone (male bee) cells. Some were capped with a thin layer of beeswax.

(L): The bees tirelessly work to expand the comb of the hive, rich in honey. (R): In most hives, the majority of drone brood cells, which appear more beige coloured and round in shape, are usually clumped around the margins of the comb (L). Photos: Kat Finck (L) and Camille Morales (R)


Waxed capped drone cells appear more beige colored and round in shape. They signify the presence of broods and are referred to as “brood cells.” In the context of honey bees, brood represents the three phases (egg, larvae, and pupae) of pre-adult life. Loise explained how the health of a hive can be recognized through certain patterns and colors when looking at these capped drone brood cells.

“Worker bee cells on the other hand are more versatile,” Loise exclaimed. Their cells are used for pollen as well as honey storage and eggs, which are laid by the queen. She went on to explain how frames of healthy capped worker broods were normally solid brown and convex.

(L): A worker bee carries orange pollen grains back to the hive to feed young nurse bees and drones. (R): Loise holds up a peanut shaped queen cell, oriented vertically along the bottom of the comb, for inspection. Photos: Kat Finck (L) and Camille Morales (R)


Finally, we came across the queen cell on the bottom of the honeycomb. Each colony has one queen whose primary function is reproduction. A queen may lay up to 1,500 eggs per day and possibly more than a million in her lifetime. She can live for as long as five years, but on average has a life span of two to three years. The second major function of a queen is producing pheromones that serve to unify the hive. When the pheromones are no longer adequate, the workers prepare a new wax cell to replace (supersede) her from the hive.

Mesmerized by these differences, the farmers leaned in. “When a hive is healthy, worker bee cells will be full of pollen, honey and brood” said Loise. It was clear that farmers were taking mental notes of these distinctions so that they could monitor the development of their own hives and more effectively deter elephants away from their farms.

Loise lifts up a healthy comb that consists of capped beige brood cells (left outer layer of the comb), white capped worker bee cells with honey (top part of the comb) and uncapped/capped worker bee cells with stored pollen and brood (middle of the comb). Photo: Kat Finck


For farmers, beekeeping also provides a more sustainable way of living. In her first training, Loise stressed the importance of honey as a product that could be sold in local markets. By regular inspection of their hives, farmers can monitor the health of their bees, and take steps to stop the spread of diseases in their colonies so that more honey is produced.

(L): Farmers admire the swarming bee colonies within the frames of their hives. (R): Farmers can economically benefit from the bees’ honey production. Photos: Kat Finck


The drought has challenged farmers to expand their traditional ways of farming and find alternative solutions, such as beekeeping, to reduce human elephant conflict. Jonas Mwakima, one of the farmers, reflected on his upgraded beekeeping skills. “I have been beekeeping for a while and thought I knew what I was doing. When [Loise] came, that’s when I realized I wasn’t a beekeeper,” he humbly announced with a grin on his face. “I was keeping the bees but I wasn’t beekeeping.” After Loise’s training, farmers such as Jonas, now have the tools to courageously farm in the face of unreliable climatic changes that threaten their livelihoods. That is, with the help of small but powerful insects.

(L): A farmer checks and prepares the frames of his beehive to encourage bee occupancy. (R): Farmers check the remaining hives themselves after Loise’s initial guidance (R). Photos: Kat Finck



The views, opinions and position expressed in this article belong solely to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the policy and position of Save the Elephants



Leave a Reply